In Grizzly Country: Too Close For Comfort?

A man from San Diego was killed by a grizzly bear recently, on the Toklat River in Alaska on the same overcast day that my son and I played in the woods outside our cabin, 30 miles away.

The Toklat River bar is a place my family has often hiked, saturated in Denali's scenery.

Richard White's was the first death by a grizzly in Denali National Park's 90-year history.

The park went on high alert. The following week, all of us visitors at the Eielson Visitors Center were herded onto a concrete patio when a grizzly ambled by on a nearby hillside, browsing on berries. Everyone's hackles went up.

Nobody in the area escaped the horror or the sadness. Friends who live locally discussed the Park Service's reaction in hushed and careful voices, sometimes with tears, wondering what might have provoked the bear and imagining the plight of the victim. All of them are people who spend most of their lives in and around Alaska's wilderness, some living lives so primitive it would be hard for outsiders to imagine.

This was not the first death in Denali this year. Five climbers died attempting to scale the mountain's icy flanks. Last summer a woman drowned trying to reach the Into the Wild bus just outside the park.

Park Watch reports deaths from animals in all national parks at just .06 percent. The top three causes of death in national parks are drowning, 37 percent; motor vehicle accident, 23 percent; and falling, 15 percent.

Denali's accident rates are well below those of other parks and recreation areas, including Lake Mead, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glen Canyon and Golden Gate. In Yellowstone, which hosts around 40,000 overnight backcountry users a year, there have been only five bear attacks in the last five years. This summer in Yosemite, three people so far have died from hantavirus, a rodent-borne illness. Nationally, statistics on animal attacks put bees and pet dogs at the top of the list for causing human fatalities.

So why the horror about a statistically rare bear fatality? It's true that a quick browse through Alaska Bear Tales can tell you of brutal bear attacks. But a fatal car accident is also a grisly demise. Why, despite statistics indicating the greater likelihood of death by car, bee or the common flu, does our heart overwhelm our head when it comes to bears?

I think that when a bear kills a human being, one of our own, a sense of wrongdoing, a sense of another creature's agency, comes into play. A bear operates from an instinct that humans can only try, and usually fail, to understand. Regardless of the precautions we take and the actions we might try to anticipate danger in the wild, there will always be some degree of risk and unpredictability when we go to wild places.

The horror surrounding death by a bear taps into our primal instinct, an innate understanding and supreme discomfort as we grasp in a visceral way that some other animals consider us prey. In our carefully constructed societies, we take great pains to protect ourselves from internalizing or even considering that understanding. To think of ourselves as prey is unnerving.

But this also underscores what the environmental historian Paul Shepard understood as an ancient connection between humans and bears, and also between humans and the natural world. This connection is what many of us seek when we venture into wild places. Like all things sacred, we can only accept it as gift.  Like all things of great beauty, it sometimes comes at great price.

A healthy population of predators indicates a healthy ecosystem, as any biologist will tell you, and Alaska is fortunate that so many of the state's wild places are so healthy. This is what draws people here and brings people back. The wilderness in Alaska is still intact, and that is a beautiful and increasingly rare thing.

This does not take away from the tragedy of a death–even a death in one of the most beautiful places on earth. I mourn for the family of Richard White. It does not take away from the tragedy of bears wrongly killed by people, either, and no, I don't think they are the same thing. But both are tragic. The opportunity for the coexistence of human and wilderness is a precious gift, integral not only to the continued existence of the wild but also to the deepest parts of the human psyche. There remains an intimate place in each of us that needs the integrity of the natural world.

Shannon Huffman Polson lost her father and stepmother to a grizzly bear attack in America's Arctic, and retraced their steps the following year, a journey she recounts in her soon-to-be published memoir, North of Hope. She lives in Seattle.

This essay first appeared in High Country News.